Signs on the Earth

There are too many of us now wanting much, much more than past generations. Contentment is now a scarce commodity.

Corruption has appeared in the land and sea,
for that men’s own hands have earned,
that He (Allah) may let them taste some part of that which they have done,
that perhaps they may return. (Quran, 30:41)

Signs on the Earth: Islam, Modernity and the Climate Crisis is a wake-up call and a call to action by one of the world’s leading Muslim environmentalists—Fazlun M. Khalid. Khalid tells the story of how money, power, and culture have created the current environmental crisis. While this book is full of information specifically about climate change and other topics, where it really shines is as a beginner’s text to talk about the interconnectedness of environmental issues, world economics, and world hegemony. For example, the development of modern day banking and colonialism (from the 1500s until today) are two of the major topics Khalid contextualizes in relation to the catastrophe that is our management of the Earth. Khalid even tackles the fact that I just alluded to the “management” of the Earth: we have dissociated ourselves from nature in order to rule over it. In reality, we are a part of nature and cannot survive separate from it. Quranic verses throughout the fact-heavy text show that environmentalism is as much a part of Islam as we are a part of the Earth.

Chapter 1 uses the metaphor of a house of cards to describe how our political, economic, and cultural institutions have (possibly irrevocably) damaged the earth we require for our survival.

This then is the house of cards we inhabit, built layer upon layer with what modernity represents. The first layer consists of the banks which excretes [sic] phantom money that is the cement that holds this fragile edifice together. On top of which is built the nation state, industry, trade, business large and small, education, health, housing and social services, communication and all the multifarious institutions that keep our lives moving, all depending on the individual as a consumer and a source of tax at the top of this rickety edifice.

Chapter 2 describes the environmental crisis in detail. Spaceship Earth is our only home, but we seem to have forgotten that it is a closed system; there is a water cycle and a carbon cycle because these are limited resources.

A very latecomer to planet Earth, an upstart species with an enlarged brain has contrived to shorten its welcome by subverting the very conditions of its own survival.

We also appear not to be able to recognize the inter-connectedness of all of things, animate and inanimate, to each other and ourselves. Once we move past these barriers that shield our vision we come to the inevitable conclusion that our actions in one part of the world affect other people living on the other side of the planet, as the Earth is a closed system. As technology shrinks the Earth it appears to create a corresponding narrowing of our vision that alienates us from the natural world. The greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions which cause global warming refuse to confine themselves to those industrial regions of the Earth where they were originally generated; there are no distant corners of the Earth any longer. The nature of nature is such that the stratospheric jet stream and planetary climate systems simply do not recognize national boundaries, and they tend to carry GHGs willy-nilly to all parts of the Earth.

Here are a few depressing facts from this chapter to tide you over until you can read it yourself:

  • Evidence of the chemicals we unthinkingly wash down the drain (cosmetics, household products, etc.) have been found in fauna in two of the deepest ocean trenches. In other words, we have turned the oceans into a consumer cesspit.
  • Ten percent of the 260 million tons of plastic we produce each year ends up in the ocean.
  • If we continue at our current rate of deforestation in the United States, “only one-fourth of the forests standing today will be standing in 70 years.”
  • “There is now a general consensus among scientists and wider afield that we are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction. ‘One in five species on Earth now faces extinction, and that will rise to 50% by the end of the century unless urgent action is taken.'”
  • “Industrial fishing methods now threaten existing fish stocks and it is estimated that there are enough trawlers to fish three planets the size of Earth.”

In Chapter 3, Khalid uses the history of the Sumerians, the Mayans, and the Rapa Nuis to explore the reality of three buzzwords—progress, development, and growth. These words are often used as economic indicators, but, in reality, they are the harbingers of “an unmitigated assault on the natural world.” “Growth” is offered up as the be-all and end-all solution to our ills, but the truth is that we have grown beyond the capacity of the Earth. As Khalid says, “Reducing carbon footprints means curbing growth rates, and who is going to be the first to do that?” And “progress” has a price: “The first human who dug a hole in the soil in some bygone age and planted a seed also planted the idea that the environment can be manipulated to human advantage.” He suggests replacing those three buzzwords with one: equity.

In Chapter 4, Khalid asks the question: how did we move from functioning within the capacity of local environments to exceeding the capacity of the entire planet? He begins in Mesopotamia and charts the exchange of goods and ideas until he arrives at the largest movement of resources from one side of the world to the other—colonialism. Khalid also charts the development of money and how it began as a commodity and is today nothing more than an “information exchange system.”

Planet Earth was reasonably safe until the human species discovered a method of conjuring money out of thin air.

In Chapter 5, Khalid describes some interfaith and Islamic projects serving the environment, and he lays down a framework for understanding our role on the earth from a spiritual perspective.

The Qur’an is inherently environmental and holistic in its approach. It speaks of creation (khalq) and contains over 250 verses where the word is used in its various grammatical forms. . . The human community is but an infinitesimal part of the natural world but we have now lost sight of this through our proclivity for dominating it.

Something that I really enjoyed about this chapter is the way that the inclusion of Quranic verses in a conversation about the environment lends new meanings to familiar verses. For example:

Consumerism has become so all-pervasive that we even consume religion in the form of ritual. If this ritual is lifeless and does not connect us with the ‘blessed gift’ of the Creator, the natural world, we are left with an entity we see as a resource that satiates our consumer lives. What we are shoring up is a model of progress and prosperity that lures us like . . . ‘a mirage in a spacious plane which a man athirst thinks it is water but when he reaches it, he finds it to be nothing’ (24:39).

Khalid also creates principles we can apply to the environment out of Islamic ideas—tawhid gives us the unity principle, fitrah gives us the creation principle, mizan gives us the balance principle, and khilafah gives us the responsibility principle. This chapter also discusses some of the practices that were done in the time of the Prophet (s) that can be adapted to conservation efforts today.

The appendix includes an Islamic declaration on global climate change. It lays out affirmations and calls to action, and several of the sections are supported by the Quran.

I also really appreciate that quotations from the Quran that appear in the book are collected in a section at the back. I anticipate that it will be very useful for readers who are looking for an index of verses relevant to the environment. 

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in learning about the state of the environment from an Islamic or an interfaith perspective.

I was provided a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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